Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Quiet Opportunity in Casual PC Games

I attended the session "The Quiet Opportunity in Casual PC Games", and while there was some good content, I worry about anyone attending the session who doesn't have a grasp and knowledge of the state of the industry.

Jessica Tams (President, Casual Games Association), and Lloyd Melnick (Co-Founder, Merscom) presented, with Jessica leading off.

To perhaps over-state it, Jessica's presentation was a mix of fluffy slides and divisive and outdated information on the casual market and casual gamer demographic. I give her props for voicing strong opinions (like not buying any of the GTA franchise "if you have morals"), and demerits for miss-stating the separation of core and casual gamers and advertising opps, and relying on outdated data from 2007. But she gets props for finishing out with passion and humor.

Lloyd from Merscom presented some interesting interesting.

Because Merscom is so big (40+ portals and aggregators) they're both one of the bigger "secrets" for those not familiar with the casual market, and they have direct access to a lot of current data. I was scribbling as I was blogging this, so I may do a follow-up with more data.

Other thoughts:

  • Casual Games fit media vehicle timelines better (film, etc.)
    Cooperation, aligned interests (lower risk, and more co-funding and co-development)
    - Share costs
    - Share Revenue
    - Interests Align
    - Incentive to keep costs reasonable
    - Low development budgets = 50% royalty

    > Mass market, rather than core gamers
  • Big portals
    > Big Fish (~50% of casual portal traffic)
    > RealArcade
    > Oberon
I really wish the game industry, and the casual market, would learn from other industries. I need to right my comparison to one particular "expressions-driven" vertical industry.

Official breakdown:

While much of the glamour and publicity goes to the major core game releases like GTA and GoW, it is the casual market that is enjoying the strongest growth of any sector of the game, let alone entertainment, industry. Casual games are PC titles that target the mass market but primarily 30+ women. They are sold via download on websites such as Yahoo! Games, Big Fish Games, RealArcade and hundreds others as well as retailers including Walmart, Target and Best Buy. Unlike their core game cousins, these projects often have a development cycle of less than six months and budget under $100,000. This session will explore opportunities for developers and small publishers in this fast growing space.

* Lloyd Melnick
Co-Founder, Merscom

As a co-founder of Merscom, Lloyd has marketed, produced and published over 150 games for both the casual and core gamer market. Lloyd played a key role in the development and launch of Merscom's number one hit title, Blood Ties, building a relationship with Lifetime Networks, selecting the game's developer and managing the launch. Lloyd secured relationships for Merscom with leading portals and aggregators including Big Fish Games, RealArcade and Oberon in the U.S., helping Merscom gain access to virtually all casual game customers.

*Jessica Tams
President, Casual Games Association

Jessica is the Founder and Managing Director of the Casual Games Association. Jessica oversees the Casual Games Association and the Casual Connect series of services. Previously Jessica was in development, publishing and distribution of casual, core and Xbox games in roles ranging from engineering to product planning & business development.

Talking to Each Other: Methods for Open and Successful Communication Across Disciplines

I attended the "Talking to Each Other: Methods for Open and Successful Communication Across Disciplines" session.

Brass tacks, this is where a lot of companies absolutely crater themselves. This was largely centered around conflict resolution (designers and engineers), applicable to a bunch of scenarios.

Gary Stelmack (representing design) and Marq Singer (representing engineering) drove the session.

This was one of those sessions (for me) that contained no new info, per se, but was still incredibly valuable in the restatement (and very encouraging to hear it presented to game devs.

Coming from a heavy requirements management background, I did like the reminder to to not start a dialog with the requested solution. Rather, starting with a general statement of what offer to be done, and the parameters the solution offer to meet.

Other bits:
*People to whom your talking don't necessarily have the same context you do.
* Do thinking about the problem, possible solutions, pros and cons, etc. - and be able to articulate them.
* Avoid a heavy use of lingo
* "I'm as smart as you" syndrome (being afraid of looking stupid, which is the flip side to cultural elitism, which wasn't addressed in the talk).
* Cool idea to tag people with internal "evangelist" (bridge builders) to work through cross-functional friction / disconnects.

I like how much energy Marq and Gary had, which made what was ostensibly a personnel process talk engaging. I also like how honest Gary was in talking about how he used to fall into the elitist trap, until people who cared enough broke him out on it.

My criticism of the session is - HUGE irony - there was no real dialog prior to the Q&A. They basicly tore through the content at us for 45 minutes.

Official breakdown:

We will discuss the basic framework and components that make up a typical cross-discipline discussion of a feature or feature request. This will delve into the tools that are required to properly initiate a discussion and cover the necessary types of information and goals that need to be developed before the discussion can start, providing a basis for identifying common problems that must be overcome before the discussion can successfully progress. Using examples that might be seen on a daily basis while developing a game, the types of common problems that hamper effective communication will be covered, along with techniques on identifying and rectifying those issues and finally, how these techniques can work with external communications and in dealing with online communities.


* Marq Singer
Red Storm

Marq Singer has had a long and varied career. He spent the late 80's and early 90's working in the film industry in a variety of projects and roles, which ranged from general crew for TV commercials to special effects for horror films, including the minor cult-classic Killer (1989). He is a co-author of "Java Applets and Channels: Without Programming" and has contributed to the popular "Game Programming Gems" series. He has given multiple lectures on a variety of game-related topics. Since 1998, he has been working in the games industry serving in a number of engineering functions including physics, animation, UI and AI. Currently, he is a physics programmer for Red Storm Entertainment, a division of Ubisoft, working with both the Havok(tm) engine and custom dynamics. The most recent title that he worked on was Rainbow Six: Lockdown for the PS2 and PC.

* Gary Stelmack
Red Storm

Gary has worked at Red Storm Entertainment for 11 years, assisting in the development of games from both the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon series. He started in QA and shifted into design, where he has been happily working for the past 8 years. Being involved in both disciplines and working with relatives who are engineers has helped him to develop solid communication skills that were often learned the hard way. Most recently, Gary has worked on America's Army: True Soldiers for the Xbox 360 and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 for the Xbox 360.

Engine Licensing & IP Protection

I attended the "Engine Licensing & IP Protection" session, mostly because I should because of my job, but partly - honestly - because I wanted to.

Greg Boyd was a fairly engaging speaker (especially given the content), though he apologized way too much about the dryness of the content.

The session was too-lightly attended, made up of mostly of Emergent Game Technologies, Crytek, and Epic Games and their attorneys. And some game devs.

I should probably be careful about summarizing this talk, since it's content from an attorney.

Subjects covered included:

* The grant (Length, Territory, Payment)
* Distribution (Commercial allowed?
Content limits? Include your source? Geographical limits? Your source with it?)
* IP rights (Rights in the final product, Rights in improvements to the engine, Reservations of rights in the tools - what are you allowed to do?)
* The Risks (Representation of Warranty, No IP infringement, Professional and workmanlike quality, No virus, Security, Compliance w 3rd party code or policies)
*Indemnifcation - a set of promises from both companies, and who will pay for resolving each
> Ip rights (patent?)
> Gross Negligence
> Breach of this agreement
> Third party losses (check this)
* Limitation of liabilities (Caps in fancies - Fees, timeframe?
Exceptions? Perhaps just a support promise)
* Payment
> Free
- "I fear free"
- What are the strings?
- What is the support?
- What other games have launched with it
> Money up front
- Usually pretty hefty
- Usually no money up front
- Check for differences in product and services based on changes in price
- Negotiate the sum
> Royalty Stream
- Usually no (or little) money up front
- Run spreadsheets
- Talk to publishers and audit
- Negotiate the rate

Official breakdown:

How do intellectual property and licensing work together to protect a developer's code in documents like an engine license? In this session, we will look at the elements of an engine license and the variety of ways this type of intellectual property may be licensed. Starting with the basic intellectual property components, we will examine the critical clauses in these agreements including payment, scope, representations and warranties, indemnification, and limitation of liability. We will dissect these clauses and discuss what they mean practically for both licensors and licensees of technology. Using an engine license as an example and educational tool, this session should help developers understand the core concepts that are important to all types of software licensing.
* Greg Boyd
Davis & Gilbert

Greg Boyd is an attorney with Davis & Gilbert in New York and has represented some of the most prominent game companies in the world. He is co-editor of the popular reference book Business and Legal Primer for Game Development. Dr. Boyd is a frequent conference speaker including GDC, SXSW, Austin GDC, and State of Play. His commentary on the game industry has appeared in many media outlets including Fortune, Forbes, CNN, DFC Intelligence, Game Developer Magazine, and Gamasutra. He sits on the Board of Advisors for Mobygames. Dr. Boyd obtained MD and JD degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Right to Game: An interview with Hal Halpin

Several of the 9:30 sessions for day #2 of the Triangle Game Conference got off to kind of an anemic start -- unfortunately, especially on the business and policy side.

I attended "Right to Game: An interview with Hal Halpin", a deeper dive into what the hell the ECA is doing for the game industry. Fortunately, the answer is "a hell of a lot".

Non-mic'ed, hard-to-hear session aside, the Entertainment Consumers Association has refocused to be advocates for consumer rights and educating, from DRM awareness to standardizing EULA. They're a good balance for retailer and industry advocacy groups.

Hal was very complimentary toward the ESRB, while echoing a concern I have about needing to better distinguish between Halo- and GTA-style M-rated games.

Hal also made the analogy too the AAA organization, and the same way that the ECA wants to do both advocacy and affinity benefits.

They're also hiring Jason Andersen (I think from ONE PR Studio) as a public-facing advocate.

Hal stifled himself a few times to not disclose upcoming announcements, and it sounds like they'll be meeting consumer demographic needs outside of gaming, per se.

I find it frustrating that games are saddled with restrictions more akin to toys, rather than the media they are.

Interesting side distinction was the fact that PC titles are much more of a "software-seat" style license, making resale a no-opp, but console titles are more of a traditional merchandise purchase, and can hence be resold.

Full disclosure - I'm an ECA member. And there are 50 chapters, so there's likely an opp to participate close to you.

The session was mediated by Themis Media Group co-founder and CFO Thomas S. Kurtz.

Here's the official digest:

Join us for a conversation between ECA President Hal Halpin and The Escapist's Russ Pitts over the future of games as a media and a business, the role of the Electronic Consumers Association and the many key issues facing consumers today, including DRM, Net Neutrality, the economy and the ESRB.


* Hal Halpin
President, ECA

Hal Halpin is the president of the Entertainment Consumers Association (ECA), the non-profit membership organization which represents gamers. Mr. Halpin, a pioneer in the interactive entertainment industry with more than 15 years of experience, has dedicated himself to creating organizations that help unite and advance the games business. In addition to the ECA, he also formed numerous influential publications, services and organizations. He is often called upon by members of the media and government officials to represent the interactive entertainment sector.

Panel Moderator
* Russ Pitts
Director of Video Content, The Escapist

* Thomas S. Kurtz
Chairman & CFO, Themis Media

Russ Pitts is the Director of Video Content for Themis Media, where he is Executive Producer for all of their web series, including Zero Punctuation. Russ has worked in the entertainment industry for 20 years, first as an independent video director and producer and later as a producer and writer for TechTV's groundbreaking series "The Screen Savers."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Triangle Games Conference

The Triangle Games Conference kicked off today (or last night, if you count yesterday's excellent IGDA Triangle chapter conference kickoff drink fest party).

There are five track sessions at the conference, offering something for everyone in the biz:
  • Game Tech & Programming
  • Game Design & Production
  • Games & Media
  • Serious Games
  • The Business of Gaming

Keynotes will be from Mike Capps ("What Makes US Epic") and Peter Tamte ("Please Publish Six Days in Fallujah" "Brave New World: The 3 Forces Re-shaping the Videogame Industry").

With well over 600 folks attending, and conference-goers and presenters from at least as far as Germany (the wicked smart and very pleasant tech guys from Crytek), the Triangle's inaugural games conference has turned into anything but "just a local event".

Emergent Game Technologies will be well-represented at the show as well, with architect Vincent Scheib giving a talk about "Rapid Prototyping Technology", VP John Austin sitting in on the "Breaking into the Game Industry" panel, and a bunch of us running around there today and tomorrow attending sessions and getting caught up with our industry brethren.

Hope to see you there.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Where are you buying Wolverine this week?

One of the two comic book games to which I'm looking forward ships this week -- X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

I've got a bit of a conundrum -- where should I buy the game?

The GameStop pre-order, which gives access to the "Weapon X Arena", sounds pretty sweet (now that I know the details).

But snagging the game at Best Buy gets me an unlockable costume that looks like an Astonishing X-Men(ish) version of the classic yellow costume. For me, being able to play through as costumed Wolvie, rather than Hugh Jackman, will add to the immersiveness, and feed my inner fanboy. (Of course, if the healing factor stuff gets borked because of the costume, I'll be peeved.)

Of course, if this unlockable costume was the brown costume for the heirsuit Canuck, that'd be a lock for me. Sadly, that costume doesn't appear on the table.

So, which one are you going to get? Let me know in the comments.

UPDATED: According to this IGN interview, the Best Buy classic blue and yellow, my favorite brown and tan, and the black X-Force uniform are all unlockable in-game. Looks like GameStop is going to get my money.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Recent games powered by Gamebryo

I've probably missed a few recent games powered by Gamebryo, but here are two commercially released titles and two academic prototypes that recently saw the light of day.

First up is winter sports title Ski Doo: Snowmobile Challenge, from some of my favorite devs Coldwood Interactive, published by Valcon Games). Think intense, authentically licensed snowmobile racing, including online multiplayer matches, and great in-house physics. (Boxed title for PS3 and Xbox 360.)

Next up is Wheel of Fortune from Sony Online Entertainment, joining the previously released Jeopardy TV - gameshow - to - console translation. (DL for PS3 via PSN.)

Then there are couple of student projects from the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy.

These student projects are done as part of the two-to-four-week "Rapid Prototype Production" course, a boot camp for making first games and innovating gameplay. Both titles are same-box multiplayer, and downloadable to play on PC (be sure to read the system requirements, first).

Ballocalypse -- A puzzle game described as "intense, fast-paced, multi-player 'Pong meets Peggle' on steroids!" It's a fun diversion, and has some nice little add-ins like rumble, pan/tilt/zoom, etc.

Arcane Fury -- a straightforward, multiplayer contained arena multiplayer brawler, and there's something very satisfying about freezing and then pushing off another player (though boost is a tricky, as I keep sailing off the platform to my death).

Again, these titles were made in less than a month(ish), and have all of the gameplay elements tied in.

Like I said, I'm sure I've missed more titles that have recently released, so I'll try to pick those up in a later post.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Two games I want

There is one thing I want -- comic book games.

Actually, make that two things -- comic book games that don't suck.

Wait, wait; three things -- comic book games that don't suck that I can play right now.

OK, I have to wait for the third thing, but not for long.

And I am guaranteed -- guaranteed -- by people "in the know" that these two games will not suck. I'm holding them to that.

First, there's the "I'm - not - a - movie - tie-in - game" X-Men: Origins Wolverine (same name as the movie). You can watch gushing video from Marvel fanboys Raven Software (some of the better devs out there, and behind a ton of great games, including Marvel fare X-Men: Legends (my original Xbox caught on fire while playing that one); X-Men Legends II, the first MUA, etc.).

Second, because I'm a huge fan of the first Marvel Ultimate Alliance, I am sooo stoked for MUA 2 (pronounced "moo-ah-tu"; maybe not). While the cinematics and cut-scenes don't look as hot as the first MUA, the gameplay, "power fusion" gimick (mixing two super powered beings', er, powers to new, devastating effect), and its setting in the recent Marvel "Civil War" story arc should give me an excuse for countless lost ours, much geek joy, and cause my wife to wonder (yet again) why she continues to sleep with me.

It's all worth it.

Wolverine's bloodletting fertilizes lawns starting May Day, and MUA 2 hits this fall (sigh).

Monday, April 13, 2009

Who should buy Midway

Midway is on the chopping block. It's been a weird, relatively recent spiral for the game industry mainstay, but sadly, it looks like Midway may go the way of Atari or Acclaim (if it's lucky), reborn in another skin for a venerable brand.

So who should buy Midway? The brand's got cachet, IP, and ... loads of debt (likely the biggest stumbling block for purchase).

Allegedly, at least three companies are vying for Midway: Warner Brothers, Ubisoft and "a private Chicago investor" (not that that went well previously).

The first two are interesting options, I'm not going to speculate on the third, but what about a dark-horse fourth?

What about Epic Games?

Now, I'm being totally speculative, have no apriori knowledge, and this probably won't fly, but it struck me this morning that this could be a good match.

Think about it, Epic's into buying good dev teams in their bid for world domination (a la Chair Entertainment and People can Fly), Midway has a whole lot of experience using the Unreal Engine (basically making it their company-wide tech), but have grumbled about it (with some possible legal fallout that could be absorbed in an acquisition), the Unreal Tournament license has gone from Atari to Midway, and given Midway's current state, I doubt they can hold onto it.

I'm just saying.

I don't know what Epic's cap table looks like, if an acquisition is even feasible, what other discussions Epic is having with the likes of Microsoft in relation to the Gears franchise, or with Electronic Arts, who is the named publisher for the People Can Fly title, etc.

So, it's wildly speculative. But sometimes the more interesting Biz Dev thoughts are.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Zorsis is Dead Space for Wii's Daddy

OK, not really, but I am pretty tickled by the similarities.

If you're not up to speed on the Wii offering for the top-notch survival horror Dead Space title from Electronic Arts, it's not going to be a port -- it's going to be a prequel, implemented totally differently as an on-rails, almost light-gun(esque) title.

If you're not familiar with "Forbidden Terror on Station Z!" (aka, "Zorsis"), it's the technical demo Emergent Game Technologies did for our Wii engine offering for the 2008 GDC (I wanted a gritty, atypical Wii "grown-up" demo), and it's a zombie on-rails "light-gun" shooter (in space).

Here's a Zorsis screen cap from GDC a year ago:

Zorsis screenshot from Emergent Game Technologies; contact Adam Creighton for more information
And here's a screen cap of Dead Space: Extraction (shipping from EA this fall):

Dead Space Extraction  Various

Even the Extraction targeting reticules have the same blue and orange motif!

All kidding aside, kudos to EA for not just shoe-horning Dead Space as a quick-and-dirty port to the Wii. This new entry in the franchise really showcases their commitment to treating it like a leverage able IP (not that the comic books, animated film, etc. didn't).

Still, there is a weird, kindred similarity to "Zorsis" ...

Zorsis gameplay vids (PC and Wii) can be found on YouTube, and you can download the PC version of the demo to play as well.

GDC 2009: The aftermath

An extended outage has delayed my GDC 2009 recap, but here's the short and sweet version.

We launched Gamebryo LightSpeed, and it has been received incredibly well.

Launching a new product is always dicey -- am I going to hear crickets? Boos? Hurrahs?

Fortunately, people were incredibly stoked by LightSpeed, which builds on top of the multiplatform runtime, top-tier DCC exporters, and foundational technology of Gamebryo, and adds new gameplay logic systems, non-proprietary script integration, a new world / level / placement editor, and tools for designers of all types (gameplay, level, system, etc.).

I was running pretty much 24/7 while in Latte Land, but it was incredibly productive, well worth it, and I so enjoy syncing up with Partners and colleagues in person as we all try to do big things for the industry.

Outside of Emergent, Crytek and Epic showcased some good tech, and I had some great conversations with folks from those companies.

There was some other stuff. and some other stuff I can't talk about. Yet.

And there there was OnLive, which got a lot of buzz at the show. I think I'll wait and see if I can free myself to do a separate post on the challenges and opportunities inherent with that proposed product. Not that I have any particular insight, other than doing something similar in the enterprise space, with very parallel infrastructure problems to solve.

Oh, and since I was going nutzoid at the show (and since on the personal front), I barely made a dent in my media list. Basically, I worked through a chunk of DragonBall Origins for the Nintendo DS (freaking huge game with good fan service, and required use of the stylus that I'm trying to decide is good or irritating), listened to a ton of this year's South by Southwest tunes (since I missed the show), and a few more chapters of Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know -- a book I can only read through a bit at a time, because it's hard reading for me as a dad, and wicked important.

More later ...